I like politics – the drama, the clash of ideas – not so much the score-keeping (I’m not a sports fan). One piece of the ever-interesting political puzzle has always eluded me – why is it that you can look at a political map and clearly see that the bastions of left-wing ideology are the giant cities. What is there about City-ness that produces that frame of mind? This last trip to New York finally coughed up some answers. I’d like to know what you think – these are my thoughts:
· Big cities are fairytale worlds. The ramparts are beautiful, sparkly, gold-tipped. Food just appears. Water is always hot. Transportation – I’m thinking subways here – is magic – hectic and uncomfortable, but fast and no one seems to be driving the thing. It just goes. Maggie and I, as we visited modeling agencies, kept finding ourselves in Narnian places – elevator doors in questionable looking buildings opening into splendiferous spaces with ornate red chandeliers and white leather furnishings. Enchanting. Under those circumstances it would be easy to go on imagining a completely utopian existence. Why not? Is this not already Neverland?
· Go back to transportation; in big cities going anywhere distant independently requires the punishing expense and fuss-n-bother of owning a car – to say nothing of the nerves of steel it takes to drive through LA’s freeway tangles or the clogged capillaries of New York --- or you hail a cab and pay twelve prices for the thrill of hyper-aggressive driving by someone who’s only been in the country for 3 months. Your only other option is public transportation – cheap, available, but here’s the effect: you lose the idea of being in complete control of your own movement. You wait patiently for the vehicle to appear. You sit obediently in your seat (or stand and hold on for dear life) and you go where the thing takes you, which is rarely exactly where you want to end up. The idea of independence would get shaky after too many years of that. Some freedom gets sacrificed for the advantages of living in a phenomenal city, making it easier to give up a little more, and a little more, and a little more.
· And just the constant contact with so many other people tends to erase some of the sense of responsibility for managing on your own. It’s a delicious thing in many ways, but nowhere on earth are you more separated from the source of all Being than you are in a City. Other people – quite obviously – are making things work for you. The doorman in your building keeps you safe. The deli owner on the corner cooks your breakfast. There’s a guy who comes to walk your dog, a nanny who takes your kids to soccer practice, a bus driver who’s always on time. It only takes one little slide to the left to assume that government is just another one of those reliable folks who make your life function; one could easily forget the dangers inherent in political power.
· Any metropolitan area attracts the best – the best architecture, the best theater, the best food, the best music and art and fashion and literature – the best tend to congregate in the Cities where it becomes pretty easy to get big headed about being human. Human beings built the Empire State Building in only 17 months. They carved out tunnels to make the subways. They built giant harbors, complicated road systems, amazing bridges. It would be easy being surrounded by such grandeur to assume that man does not need God, that he is capable of doing anything, even legislating a perfect society.
· Big cities are cool. Sophistication, both real and imagined, seeps out of every pore; I feel thoroughly debonair just having walked down 5th Avenue. And nothing is more cosmopolitan, more urbane, more suave than going against the grain, being on the cutting edge of whatever hair-brained, and often immoral, idea comes down the pike. Tradition is stodgy, concern for the Constitution old hat, respect for the Bible provincial. Being cool and being right wing don’t fit together in the metro mind, and when you have available several million others subconsciously wanting to be cool with you, or cooler than you – that’s a tough one to beat.
· And lastly, a metropolis is anonymous. This gets us back to my first point – a lot of City-ness is pretend, is smoke and mirrors. New York, for all its beauty, sits on top of a dark web of underground tunnels and cellars – a phantom-of-the-opera blackness full of sewers and water pipes and sub-sub basements. We shopped at a store in Times Square that was four stories – down. The city also sits on top of another kind of darkness – you can reinvent yourself there, be someone you are not, and do so with great ease. It’s nearly impossible to know who anyone really is and so it is easy to be fooled by those who tell you one thing and mean another. Rural folk get fooled, too, but not so easily – the six degrees of separation dwindle to two in a small town.
I’m so glad to have realized these things. I suffer from an apparently unrealistic desire to have things make sense, and I’ve never understood how the smartest, most creative, most sophisticated people could make such dire political misjudgments. But I get it now.
After only a week I was starting to feel like an obedient ant in an anthill – a glorious, astounding, fascinating anthill, but an anthill nevertheless. If only the queen of the hill would just issue a decree, all would be well – the poor, prosperous and happy, the halt and lame, finally hale and hearty, the enemies at the gates, our friends. That would start to seem reasonable in a place so fanciful as the fairytale that is the City.